An A to Z of Theory | Hakim Bey: Capitalism, the State, and the Spectacle

In the latest essay of his series on Hakim Bey, Andrew Robinson examines Bey's theory of capitalism, his critique of 'cop culture' and his comments on American global hegemony; and provides an analysis of Bey's view of the dominant system.

Columns, Ideas, New in Ceasefire - Posted on Wednesday, April 18, 2018 16:12 - 0 Comments

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In the previous essay, I examined Hakim Bey’s theories of alienation and the state. Completing the examination of Bey’s analysis of the dominant system, this fifth of sixteen columns examines Bey’s theory of capitalism. It shows how Bey situates capitalism as a trance-like manipulation of desire, and as a process of alienation from the body culminating in a flight to the ether. It also examines Bey’s critique of ‘cop culture’ and his comments on American global hegemony, and provides an analysis of Bey’s view of the dominant system.

Capital and Capitalism

Bey also analyses capital as a machine for the production of scarcity and the destruction of intensity. Capitalism seeks, not to satisfy desire, but to exacerbate longing through utopian traces. This idea – which Bey attributes to Benjamin – plays on the idea that commodities are advertised in terms of future promises. The commodity will provide enjoyment or validity or reality, or validate one’s experiences. Capital needs the promise of such future benefits to sell products. Yet it also needs to avoid actually delivering on these promises. If it delivered, then there would be no need to buy further products. 

Hence, capitalism constantly reproduces scarcity to stimulate demand. This renders art threatening to capitalism. Art, or creativity, is based on the gesture of reciprocity, or presence. Everyone is an artist, in the sense of co-creation through lived experience, play, and meaning. But capitalism intervenes to mediate between people. It interrupts reciprocity and introduces scarcity and separation. Capitalism is vampiric. It relies on consuming others’ creativity. It liberates itself by enslaving desire. Much of what the system offers has no real use – it is ‘snake oil‘ – but it works because it has a placebo effect.

Capitalism stems from the invention of scarcity as an existential condition. It is driven by a totalitarian logic of eternal growth. It claims eternity, and therefore ahistoricity. Capitalism cannot “really” escape production. But the ideology of globalised capitalism creates the appearance of escaping production. It appears to be pure, disembodied and ecstatic. The triumph of capital is connected to the triumph of the screen. The system represents itself as a state of oneness, and as invulnerable. But its weakness is shown in the feeling that it is ‘not reflected in lived experience‘ – in experiences of alienation, emptiness and boredom.

Contemporary capitalism takes this process to new extremes. Today, the system is evolving towards rule by technocrats over a mass of homogenised but atomised consumers, linked only by ‘CommTech’ and mutual surveillance. The current situation is like the story, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice – in which a junior wizard uses magic in which he is untrained, causing disaster. Today this is happening with technology. The current phase of capitalism involves a kind of historical blockage. The world has basically remained in – or looped back to – the nineteenth century. Authors as early as Fourier, in 1799, were already discussing today’s problems. However, the system conceals such history. Capitalism is building an ‘8-lane bypass over the Past’. Like the state, it operates at the level of images.

The current situation is not so much postmodernist as anti-modernist. Modern insights have been denied and jettisoned. For example, the Freudian discovery of the unconscious has been rejected. It is denied and spread-out across various forms of downmarket media. One might add that Marxian insights are similarly rejected in neo-classical economics, and that sociological knowledge has been displaced by policy discourse and individualised explanations. The dominant system is today defined by its denial or warding-off of certain directions of development of knowledge, leaving knowledge as a kind of Lysenkoite shell.

Money may have originally appeared as a type of religious, symbolic power. Coins might have been temple souvenirs deemed to have mana or numinous value, which could be exchanged for real wealth. Alternatively, it might have first appeared as debt. Either way, Bey suggests that its basic gesture is to separate wealth from its symbol and recombine them later, making the symbol tradeable. The rise of money is also part of the rise of cumulative mediation. Whereas commodity currencies (such as cattle or barley) still had personal uses, money is entirely impersonal – a floating signifier.

However, writing and money are not enough to explain the rise of alienation. Money existed for 4000 years before the state emerged. The material world tends to restore equality. It resists accumulation. In any case, the State provides ‘protection’, which is not a material resource. Bey believes that symbolic power is central here. The State can only gain an advantage over diffuse social institutions when it can present its power in symbolic terms. 

Capital operates at the level of magic, or interpretation, the same level where Bey locates resistance. The capitalist type of imagination is negative, reducing everything to debt and sucking it into a black hole. Debt mutates into peonage (slavery) as jubilee (debt write-off) never comes. Abstractions are handed down from one generation to the next. Nothing is experienced directly; everything is mediated by money. Capital seeks a monopoly on interpretation. It constructs a space of supposed dialogue which in fact precludes any response, resonance or resistance.

This is similar to the idea of forced communication within dominant terms. Whereas in totalitarian systems, the regime censors by fiat, in capitalist systems the market censors through market failure. Today, capital seeks to detach images from experienced life entirely. In tourism, even the real world is experienced as an image. Tourists are seduced by the utopian trace of difference, but bear the virus of sameness into living spaces. Bey likens this process to the indigenous idea of soul loss. 

Capital Today

In Millennium, Bey suggests that, in the recent past – up to the 1990s – it was still possible to see the Spectacle or the Planetary Work Machine as the enemy. It was then possible to resist through exodus. This was the analysis underpinning TAZ – creating nuclei of alternative forces and using resistance to defend them. Today, in contrast, capitalism does not need to concede space to such ‘third forces’. It has shed its ideological armouring and initiated a full onslaught. It now treats all opponents directly as enemies. This means we are left with a global neoliberalism and a superpower which doesn’t even obey its own rules.

Bey opposes the postmodern position that all binaries and categories have now dissolved. He argues that one category – the system – survives. Survival in this context depends on persistence – on determination to remain in history after its declared end. Bey suggests that capitalism is triumphalist because of the end of the Cold War. But he argues that it is only the winner by default – because viable alternatives have collapsed first. Today, money is turning into a phantom-like, imaginary entity outside the world. The energy of life remains outside the system.

In Escape from the Nineteenth Century, Bey/Wilson argues that the increasing abstraction of capital renders it increasingly unreal and ineffective. Over 90% of money has escaped into a kind of ‘CyberGnostic heaven or numisphere’. This sphere has no relationship to production or government. Bey is here alluding to the expansion of finance capital, which has grown out of proportion to productive capital. This is similar to the Marxist idea of fictitious capital. 

However, Bey/Wilson believes it also has existential or spiritual significance. Cyber-gnosis realises the Enlightenment dream of a unified rational world-consciousness. It has expanded into a fragile membrane around the earth, a bubble filled with hot gases. It has become self-enclosed and self-referential. In another paper, Bey argues that money referring only to more money in an endless chain is the most abstract idea humanity has ever had. 

In the poem Creepy Sensation, Bey speculates that we are being watched by future people who might redeem our lost sensations, envying our sensations which they lack, and our closeness to species extinct in the future. Similarly, in ‘Islam and the Internet‘, Bey argues that the spirit/body split and the hierarchical organisation of religion reaches a culmination in cyberspace – the principle of mind separated from body.

The Internet was designed to resist physical destruction, such as nuclear war, by rapidly transcendentalising matter, transferring it between sites. It does not offer immanence, but a false transcendence based on the gnostic mind-body split. It is a kind of heaven. The conflict over the future of the Internet thus seems to be a ‘war in heaven’. (In Riverpeople, Wilson reverses this and suggests that money has virtualised itself into Hell). There is barely even a ruling-class, firstly because CEOs are replaceable functionaries, and secondly because only a few hundred people ‘control’ half the money. Actually, Bey believes that nobody is in control any more. The ruling class has lost control of virtual capital.

Capitalism today pretends to be the only possible world. For Bey, this entails a kind of closure of reality. This closure has created a sense of numbness and powerlessness. It also leads to ennui and anomie, as ways of covering-up an anger with no clear target. It is impossibly pessimistic to actually feel what is happening today, a ‘tragedy without catharsis’. The current world is marked by a new kind of psychological malaise.

Bey suggests that this malaise stems from a ‘cognitive collapse’. This collapse is focused on the single world of capitalist monoculture. It is the effect of a deep psychological capitulation to this world as the only alternative available. Echoing Baudrillard, Bey argues that the relationship of alienation, the ‘mirror of production’, has been replaced by a ‘vertigo of terror‘.

This new phenomenon realises tendencies inherent in capitalism. Indeed, money has always been nothing but absence or debt. Most people are now in debt to de-realised finance capital, and excluded from the heaven reserved for the very few. Capital takes off into a timeless future, leaving the rest of us stuck, reliving the past. The stock market soars, but leaves zones of depletion everywhere. Such zones of depletion are both regions and groups of people. Such zones of depletion are not rescued by the system but punished. 

Bey sees money as a religious phenomenon, striving to remove itself from the world of bodies to the world of spirit. Coins were initially seen as ‘liminal’ objects, existing at the intersection of the material and spiritual worlds. Whereas nomads move between spaces, money moves from time to time, obliterating space. It is based on what Bey calls the ‘sexuality of the dead’ – a type of inorganic reproduction through constant splitting.

It thus captures chaos of sorts, but a type of chaos stripped of life. It cannot deal with true complexity, reducing it to sameness. Today, the attempt to posit capitalism as the only existing world turns money into the one God. Capital increasingly needs no authority except money. It has placed itself beyond the human – beyond conservatism as much as beyond leftism.

Today (or at least in the 1990s), capital has gained primacy over the state. All states, even the US, are simply turned into mercenaries of capital. One might expect a showdown between capitalism and the State for absolute power. However, the State seems to have realised it was beaten. With money breaking free of the state, the state loses its power to claim to be providing ‘something for nothing’ – protection.

The post-Fordist state provides ‘nothing for nothing’ and its power is shattered.  It has given up its protective role in every sphere from human rights to economics. It seems to believe it can give up its powers and functions and yet still survive as an ‘elected occupying army’. What remains are empty ceremony and the exercise of terror against the poor and different – for instance, the ‘war on crime’. However, Bey speculates that the state could be used as a kind of social ‘custom and right’ against capital.

Bey’s reaction to 9/11 in ‘Crisis of Meaning‘ is based on the idea that meaning is already in crisis. This is not changed by ‘5000 murders’. Yet others thought something had changed. For instance, articles after 9/11 were arguing that advertising now seemed shameful. Wasn’t it already shameful, since death and tragedy happen every day? 

Bey argues against the view that any trauma or tragedy is so great that art or poetry are no longer possible. They have already survived the Holocaust, Hiroshima, and the Gulag, in spite of predictions to the contrary. Bey predicts – probably rightly – that 9/11 would quickly be sublimated into the collective unconscious, after an orgy of fear, hate, and destruction of freedoms.

In a later interview, Bey suggests that globalism has emerged stronger than ever, because it now has the enemy it had been looking for since the Soviet collapse. America is able to sustain globalism and hegemony together. People were hypnotised by the media for two or three weeks after 9/11. This produced a ‘neurotic, obsessive, trance-like consciousness’. I would suggest that this kind of hypnosis is commonly repeated when tragedies or atrocities occur. It has become an important mechanism of stabilisation. 

Spectacle as Trance

Bey sees economic systems as producing, or being co-produced with, corresponding worldviews. Indigenous and agricultural systems have an organic consciousness. Civilisation emerges from ideologies, which rigidly order the world as if from outside. It makes abstract ideas concrete, rather than emerging naturally or organically.

As technology expands in modernity, a corresponding machinic consciousness emerges. The rigid psychological repression of the unconscious in Victorian thought is based on a mind-machine model which reflects the production line. It leads to puritanism and imperialism. We are now undergoing a further paradigm shift focused on cybernetics, quantum physics, and dematerialisation. Today, the law seeks to suppress this shift (for instance, through the ‘War on Drugs’). 

However, the system is also using the newly-recovered esoteric powers unleashed by this shift. For Bey, civilisation is a ‘trance-like state‘ which produces a ‘bad consciousness’, somewhat like a bad drug trip. Hermetic powers have also been appropriated by science, the State, capitalism, and the media. For example, adverts use erotically charged symbolic imagery, intelligence services use cryptography, and money has a spiritual origin. 

The power of such institutions can only be understood in terms of their recuperation or turning-aside of hermetic processes originally designed for liberation or immediacy. Such recuperation occurs by using the powers to control users, thus leaving them alienated rather than enchanted. Bey considers many forms of transformation to be alchemical. The system uses a lot of ‘evil alchemy’, a category which includes nuclear weapons, commodification, and acts such as 9/11. Both drug addiction and the war on drugs are ‘shamanism gone bad’.

Bey theorises capitalist ideology as a variety of the gnostic ideology of disembodiment. Information theory is now producing fantasies of disembodiment worthy of Puritans or gnostics. The ‘information economy’ is a new mask for body-hatred. It involves revulsion against the heaviness of material production, and the ongoing replacement of organic space with machinic space to organise consciousness.

Computers are a kind of prosthesis of consciousness. They make the religious mind-body split even more acute, by reifying consciousness in technology. Virtual life encourages a false transcendence, in which people believe consciousness will become immortal as pure information.

This ideology forgets that we can’t eat information. Capital seeks to transcend the body into pure spirit or information. In fact, the gnostic capital which escapes embodiment also relies on a huge exploited periphery of old-fashioned industry and agriculture, mostly in the global South. This process shows the falsity of commodities. The idea that images are wealth is a delusion caused by the Spectacle and believed by its supporters.

Bey argues that the ‘gnostic dualists are wrong’ – body and spirit cannot exist without each other. The rule of spirit has alienated us from the language of the body, which we scarcely even speak today. Modernity believes in rationality, unified consciousness, teleological history and so on. Public discourse pretends to be secular, and separate from religion. But in fact, religious phenomena keep resurfacing, for example in moral panics, conspiracy theories and so on. Such social phenomena channel similar energies to religion. Bey views the current system as in fact deeply religious, based on a gnostic separation of mind and body, and a particular answer to the religious problem of intensity.

Bey argues that the media’s extension across the social field also creates problems for power. The media has paradoxically approached a limit of ‘image-enclosure’ (by analogy with the Enclosures of land). This leads to a ‘crisis of the stasis of the image, and of the complete disappearance of communicativeness’.

In other words, because all images are captured by the media, images lose the ability to communicate. Everything the media says refers to itself, and lacks an external connection to an outside. This idea is derived from Baudrillard, and points to transformative strategies focused on horizontal communication and intimate media. Soviet communism failed because it failed to embrace the Spectacle. Capital adapted, and so will disintegrate instead of imploding. 

In one essay, Bey suggests that the Evil Eye exists, in the sense of having apparent effects. It’s a complex way in which humans affect each other. Westerners are especially vulnerable to the Eye, because the western social ethic is rooted in envy, and because defences are not used. Capitalism and Russian-style communism are both rooted in envy, and require it as a survival trait.

The gaze thus becomes a gaze of hate, rather than love. It is expressed around us as the panopticon (surveillance, performance management and so on). It manifests as an experience of deprivation and misery, often focused on lack of some commodity. This experience is fuelled by the ways we are represented, as lacking commodities or rights. Against envy, Bey proposes not morality (‘another abstraction’) but over-abundant power.

As in his other occult pieces, the claim that the Evil Eye ‘exists’ is not so much an ontological claim as a metaphor for a particular affect or social force – in this case, envy and lack. This in turn is a variant of the recurring theme of alienation, which is counterposed to life-force. 

Critique of Representation

Bey theorises representation as a hardened form of imagery. Capitalism, or the ‘cruel instrumentality of Reason‘, has a flattening effect. It reduces consciousness to a 2-dimensional map. This map is viewed mechanically. Meaning is excluded, as it would disrupt mechanical order. This leads to a contemporary ‘plague of meaninglessness’ and a collapse of ethics. Marxism is similarly limited because it reproduces meaninglessness. The theory of meaning implied here is expressive or affective. Instrumental rationality destroys meaning because it is difficult to invest emotionally in it.

The type of image used in modern society reflects this tendency towards meaninglessness. Writing and computer coding are based on images. However, they are reified, solidified forms of images. Computer coding is based on a very simple, binary image-system. It never escapes images, but they are buried more deeply. In Abecedarium, Wilson argues that writing is a form of alienation, which brings with it the state. It enables communication and therefore action at a distance. This tends to destroy earlier, direct forms of community.

However, various so-called ‘pre-writing’ systems, such as wampum, manage to avoid alienation. They should be renamed (and not called writing or pre-writing) to avoid implications of evolution-as-progress. Such systems belong to complex, wealthy societies which refuse the emergence of capitalism and the state.

Symbolism through images arises in non-state societies. However, writing based on abstract letters is inherently statist. States seem to require writing, along with irrigation and metallurgy, to exist. Writing is a kind of magic, or ‘action-at-a-distance’, which entraps people for the state. Wilson argues that Native American wampum is neither money nor writing. Instead, it operates to ward off these technologies. Colonisers turned it into money by mass-producing and counterfeiting it, cornering the market. 

In Abecedarium, Wilson recounts the evolution of the letters of the English alphabet from hieroglyphs with pictorial resemblance to the things they represent. He portrays this process as a kind of entrapment and alienation of imaginal meaning. Letters capture the spirit of the image so it can be manipulated or worshipped. Words maintain a magical (imaginal) connection to things, but this is hidden by letters.

Nevertheless, the power of images persists beneath letters. Most images are turned back-to-front or upside-down, to conceal their image-power. A, for example, is a bull or ox – but the image of its head is turned upside-down. Originally a proud bull, it is now domesticated. The underlying pictoral meaning of letters is taken to rebut the structuralist idea that writing is arbitrary. 

“Cop Culture”

The police-state logics of the contemporary state also have an imaginal element. In a 1980s piece, Bey calls for a boycott of ‘cop culture‘. He argues that police TV shows encourage identification with power – which he terms a ‘police-state-of-consciousness’. Viewers are encouraged to identify as powerless victims. This victim identity plays into the grievances of identity groups. It encourages us to see the police as the mediator between criminal and victim, and between each other. This stops us identifying as chaotic heroes. The power of the police is built on the viewer’s helplessness and lack of autonomous substance.

In police dramas, if we aren’t powerless victims, we are criminals. These shows also encourage people to act as amateur cops and ‘help’ the police. While real vigilantes are threatening to the police-state, media vigilantes support it. People are turned into extensions of the state’s surveillance machinery through shows like Crimewatch. This process turns people into a nation of toadies sucking up to an elite of bullies. It prepares us for a messianic moment of police-state control which is at once total control and leeched of content – ‘meaningless violent spasms’ as the ‘last principle of governance’.

The signifiers involved in this phenomenon are contradictory. People ambiguously identify as victims or amateur cops, but also identify as criminals and want ‘crime’. The signifier of ‘crime’ has come to stand for unmediated desire. Hence, police shows enact a kind of inner conflict between superego and id, across an abandoned landscape of alienation.

The success of police shows is a result of popular acceptance of the Manichean worldview of the police. It plays to an inner personality in which passion is dammed and diverted against itself. Bey seeks the destruction of the archetypal image of the cop or the cop-in-the-head (not necessarily of individual cops). Destroying this inner repressive force releases tides of passionate energy – not the negative disorder feared by authoritarians. 

American Global Hegemony

Bey also occasionally discusses global geopolitics. In ‘The Information War‘, Bey distinguishes three kinds of conflict. Indigenous war is a ‘ritual brawl’, voluntary and non-hierarchical. Statist or classical war is compulsory and hierarchical. Hyperreal or ‘pure’ war – the kind discussed by Baudrillard – is based on images and psychological effects. Wilson portrays the founding of America as a successful conspiracy by a white male elite against Church and King.

The elite’s power is founded on enterprise, including slavery and swindling, and a political system designed to perpetuate their rule. The US has defined itself as the hegemon over an illusory ‘free market’, acting as both CEO and ‘security cop’ at a global level. Overt discrimination has largely been replaced by psychological racism, or hostility to other cultures. Imaginative participation in other cultures is a way to resist psychological racism. 

America has tried to avoid the problem of diversity through its melting-pot approach. But in practice, American consensus culture was English colonial culture with amnesia and frontier bluster. Multiculturalism emerged as a response to the failure of assimilation. It is designed to save the American system of social control, by allowing a small degree of cultural self-identity and tokenistic inclusion.

Minority cultures are still valued only in relation to a ‘universal’ culture of the dominant group. They are also ‘appropriated’ in the sense of being commodified, and reduced to images or ‘Spectacle’. Liberal integration posits a false separation of cultures, which in fact are only tolerated or encouraged if they tacitly recognise the centrality of the consensus. Particularities and cultures are spokes in a wheel around a central hub, the dominant system. Genuine cultural autonomy and horizontal connections across cultures are forbidden.

The consensus thus sucks in energy in a death-like process. Since particularism is a source of resistance, the system offers a false form of it, devoid of insurrectionary desire. At the same time, it encourages hatred and conflict among groups, and responds to social problems with securitisation. The system provides false, packaged particularities articulated by the commodity system, whereas Bey proposes autonomous groups articulated through reciprocity and a gift economy.

Instead of multiculturalism, Bey calls for ‘radical tolerance’. This is a situation of creative chaos and multiple relations among relatively equal powers, without a centre. The system’s pluralism focuses on the specific object of desire – such as a particular food or dance – whereas the real issue is ‘to be yourself‘ or to ‘be free’. The possibility of autonomous desire is more important than the object of desire. The system can offer the object (conditional on conformity), but not autonomy – and this renders partial victories and reforms problematic.

Today’s ‘pan-capitalism’ in theory permits any image, but in practice proves unable to generate anything but sameness. Images of relations other than exchange are implicitly prohibited. For example, a documentary about an indigenous group cannot convey the meaning of gift economy, although it might create ‘cognitive dissonances’ through things which remain unseen. 

Discussion

Bey’s analysis of capitalism, the state, and the Spectacle is thought-provoking and insightful. It is written with an eye to strategic responses to particular configurations of power. Counter to certain critics, I wouldn’t interpret Bey as reducing the system to an imaginary construct, or a ‘discourse’ in a narrow sense. Rather, he is suggesting that the imaginal underpinning of the system provides the matrix for its real functioning.

The imaginal aspect of the system disrupts responses on a purely material level. It is necessary to fight at the imaginal as well as the material level to be effective. This is similar to Gramsci’s view that civil society insulates the state and capital from revolution.  It by no means implies that the system’s violence, or its human consequences, aren’t ‘real’, or that the system will disappear simply from not believing in it.

However, I feel Bey often places too great an emphasis on recuperation relative to repression, as a threat to social movements. He seems, therefore, to overemphasise imaginal strategies over material control of spaces, resources and so on. Especially in the post-9/11 era, repression is a very real threat. It responds in a targeted way to the danger posed to it by autonomous zones.

The idea that the state can function as an ‘adversary’ against which to sharpen one’s claws seems naive in a control society, in which state-produced fear and anxiety have such a debilitating effect on dissent. In addition to its imaginal operation, capital and the state also rely on spatial dominance. It seems impossible to prevent this dominance without some kind of counter-power. I would analyse legalisation, and other border-conflicts with the state, as more than just recuperation – they are also means to push back the state, to create space for autonomy.

For the other essays in the series, please visit the In Theory column page.

Editor’s note: With regards to Hakim Bey’s controversial personal stances, these will be discussed in Part 10 of this series. In the meantime, please read our ‘Note to readers’ at the end of the introductory essay of the series.

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Andrew Robinson

Andrew Robinson is a political theorist and activist based in the UK. His book Power, Resistance and Conflict in the Contemporary World: Social Movements, Networks and Hierarchies (co-authored with Athina Karatzogianni) was published in Sep 2009 by Routledge. His 'In Theory' column appears every other Friday.

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